Saturday, July 24

What were the International Brigades and why did 35,000 foreigners decide to fight for republican Spain?

“Spain was perceived as a centuries backward country with respect to« civilized »Europe”, points out the Hispanist Paul Preston, a famous researcher on the Civil War and the Second Republic. Write it in The international brigades: the international context, the means of propaganda, literature and memoirs (University of Castilla-La Mancha, 2003). Spain, as Preston continues, was seen as “a place where passions and violent atrocities were the essence of everyday life.” A vision of the country synonymous with “fanaticism, cruelty and uncontrolled emotion” appeared in the press and films that reached abroad. So why did so many young people from more than fifty different countries make the decision to sacrifice nothing less than their lives for Spain, that country they saw backward and cruel? The answer must be sought at the beginning of the Civil War and, above all, in the political context that surrounded it. Written by the historian Jaume Claret in Brief history of the International Brigades (Los Libros de la Catarata, 2016): “For many young people, the Spanish war was a just cause, the first stage of the confrontation against fascism.” That is the crux of the matter. Claret continues: “For a whole generation of young and old around the world, that was also their war.”

But what were those International Brigades and who, exactly, are these young people that Preston and Claret speak of? In short, the Brigades were foreign volunteer militias that fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. And as for its members, Paul Preston himself defines them as follows: “Some were unemployed, others were intellectuals, a few adventurers, but all had come to fight against fascism.” This is exactly what emerges from one of the letters that Brigadier Gene Wolman wrote to his family. In the letter, the soldier praised the Spanish republican struggle because “for the first time since fascism began to drown and tear apart everything we hold most dear, we are having the opportunity to fight again” and continued: “Here, finally, the oppressed of the earth we are united, here we finally have weapons, here we can defend ourselves “. To finish the letters that the volunteer sent to his family, he finished: “Here, even if we lost … because of the struggle; because of the weakening of fascism, we will have won.”

That is, ultimately, the answer to the question posed by this article. It was the desire to fight against the awakening of fascism that led so many soldiers to enlist in the Brigades. Where those soldiers came from is something on which there is no agreement. This medium has contacted the AABI (Association of Friends of the International Brigades), which, in tune with the many studies that have been carried out on the subject, assure that the number of countries of origin of the brigades exceeds fifty, but that it is very difficult to give an exact list. However, France, Poland, Italy, Great Britain or the United States are some of the ones that contributed the most soldiers.

Weight of the Brigades in the fight against fascism

Every five years, the AABI organizes a series of events to commemorate the heroism of the Brigadistas. And, as the investigations of both Preston and Claret among many others confirm, it is a heroism that was not in vain. “The Spanish Republic weakened the military capacity of fascist Italy,” says Preston. “What’s more,” he continues, “while the Republic was able to prolong its fight, Hitler was unlikely to attack France, so the British had time to rearm.” And in the Republican resistance against the national side, the Brigades had a very important weight, with which, despite the fact that the Republicans ended up losing the Civil War, they fulfilled their objective of being useful in the fight against fascism.

The participation of the International Brigades in the war lasted for about two years, approximately from October 1936 until October 1938, when a farewell tribute was paid to them in Barcelona. The first foreign volunteers who joined the fight in that October of thirty-six were, in the words of Jaume Claret, “foreigners who were already in Spain at the time of the military uprising”, that is, “political refugees, fugitives from countries fascists or on the way to being so. ” On the one hand there were socialist, communist and anarchist militants “with a high degree of political awareness” and on the other some participants in the Popular Olympiad that Barcelona hosted in protest at the Olympic Games that Nazi Germany had awarded. As the days passed, foreigners from various parts of the world joined the fight without any control and that is something that, according to the historian, has made it difficult to count how many foreign fighters formed the Brigades. Some studies place them at almost 60,000, although the most recent ones put them below 35,000.

Soon the Communist International (the Comintern) made a call to fight in the Iberian trench and began to bring in new brigade members. Why their participation in the war ended before the war itself has its explanation in “the unappreciative attitude of the countries that emit brigadistas”, in the words of Preston, and in the Pact of Non-Intervention in the war that the powers signed European countries, despite the aid that the national side did receive from Germany and Italy. On October 29, 1938, Dolores Ibárruri, Lluis Companys, Juan Negrín and Manuel Azaña, among others, presided over a parade-tribute to the brigadistas. In a speech, La Pasionaria thanked them for their commitment and promised that, in Spain, those men and women of the brigades would always have a homeland.

85th anniversary of the Brigades

The gratitude that Ibárruri expressed in 1938 was consummated in 1996, when the Government of the socialist Felipe González granted the volunteers of the Brigades the possibility of acquiring Spanish nationality. In conversation with this medium, AABI sources assure that every time events are organized in memory of the Brigades, the appreciation of Spanish society is demonstrated once again. “The average participation is about 400 or 500 people and 20% are young people,” they say. 2021 marks the 85th anniversary of the birth of the militia, so the Association will organize new activities that will be announced through its website.

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